The future is right here now
As usual, the most spine-tingling moment of the week will come in the moment before the start of the opening contest, The Supreme Novice Hurdle.
A large field of inexperienced horses piloted by jockeys still edgy with festival nerves will turn on to the track proper and a roar of anticipation builds from the stands builds to a crescendo and the whole course joins in.
The expectation and excitement levels as races start dilutes as the day goes by but most of the gusto is retained to the beginning of the second race at least, the Arkle Novice Chase. By the time these two races have concluded, much of the future has been written.
The best novice hurdler of the year, Envoi Allen, has been routed to tomorrow’s Ballymore Hurdle by Gordon Elliot after some late procrastination but the opener is still laden with serious potentials like Abacadabras, Asterion Forlonge, Shishkin and Fiddlerontheroof.
The Arkle is similarly rich with prospective champions, none as bright as Notebook, but Cash Back, and Fakir D’Oudaries are no slouches either. With the end of the Altior era fast approaching today’s Arkle Chase could signpost to the two-mile championship outcome for several years.
Another subplot of the opening novice races is the nature of the Gigginstown influence in the coming few years as the O’Leary’s accelerate the wind-down of their racing operations. The last Cheltenham Grade One winner to wear the famous purple silks is probably galloping around at the moment, but who this might be is yet unknown. There is every chance it might be running in one of the opening two novice contests this afternoon.
Is the Champion Hurdle as ordinary as it looks?
No returning champion will contest, very little evidence of an emerging superstar and few entrants that truly excite. The highest-rated runner is Sharjah, an admirable beast who collects a big prize or two most years, but not a horse that will ever goose many bumps or cause neck hair to stand on end. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that if you are lucky enough to own or train an unexposed hurdler with a rating in the vicinity of 150 you can have a runner in the Champion Hurdle and not just go there to make up the numbers. The other good news is that without any superstars to scare off the lesser lights there is a field of 17, the second-largest in 20 years and the most runners since the less than memorable Punjabi won for Nicky Henderson in 2009.
The favourite is Epatante, also trained by Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty. Her lofty position at the head of the market was earned when she stepped up to graded status to win the Christmas Hurdle impressively at Kempton. Prior to that she was running in handicaps off 137 and in her only other visit to Cheltenham she was ninth in last year’s mare’s novice hurdle.
A much warmer welcome would greet Darver Star if he can prevail. Beaten half a length by Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion at Leopardstown last month, a win would be some compensation for Gavin Cromwell who trained last year’s surprise winner Espoir D’Allen last year but sadly lost his champion to injury before learning just how good he could be.
The best chance the race has to throw up a ‘good ‘un’ seems to lie with the supplemented Cilaos Emery from the Willie Mullins stable. Always highly thought of by his trainer he never really took naturally to chasing and returned to the smaller obstacles when hacking up in the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran three weeks ago. That was as good a trial performance for any of the candidates and he looks the only one likely to drag the race from ordinariness.
Girl Power is the main power
Sunday was International Women’s Day although that celebration and recognition was officially restricted to one gender of the human species. That scope should have been extended to horses and by a couple of days because the most intriguing race on today’s card is the Close Brothers Mare’s Hurdle. The headlines from Cheltenham in tomorrow’s papers could well be written by the females.
The Mare’s Hurdle is a strong argument against the extension of the festival and the addition of all those new races. At least four of the Mare’s field would have significant chances of winning the Champion Hurdle 40 minutes earlier.
The reigning champion mare, Roksana returns to defend but she only won by accident last year when Benie Des Dieux toppled over at the last when fully in command and looking certain to follow up her win in 2018. Benie clearly didn’t suffer too much from the fall and went on to win three times since the fall including a huge prize at Auteuil in early summer. This was her first start outside restricted mare’s contests since joining the Mullins stable five years ago and she coped admirably.
Benie will start odds on today to beat Honeysuckle, still unbeaten and returning to female-only company after beating the boys at Leopardstown.
It’s frustrating that the two-mile hurdle spectacle is so diluted and that the two big Grade One hurdle races can’t be blended and merged. Even so, this Mare’s hurdle contest between the two Irish mares could be one of the races of the week.